Proceeding with caution (Transitioning to the Common Core, part 2)

In this blog series, we’re examining how five states—Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York—are approaching accountability in the transition to Common Core. Earlier this week, we explained that an accountability moratorium is already in place, at least in the states we’ve studied.

One reason that state education officials are hitting the pause button on accountability is that the tests used to assess student achievement are still in flux. State-consortia-designed tests will not be operational until next school year (2014–15), but time does not stand still for test developers. So we wanted to know, how are states approaching assessment during the transition?

Overall, states are treading carefully and strategically, since the quality of the forthcoming tests is still unknown.

One approach we observed is to modify existing state exams to cover the content of both the old state standards and the Common Core. In Massachusetts, the state’s new MA 2011 standards are actually a combination of the pre-existing state standards and CCSS; each year, additional Common Core content is being integrated into MCAS. In Colorado, the state is using TCAP, a transitional exam bridging its old standards and the Common Core standards. Officials explain that this paced approach is intended to ease students in to the new, more rigorous content, rather than to assess the entirety of the standards in one fell swoop.

A second strategy, used in Massachusetts, Colorado, and Arkansas, is piloting Common Core–aligned exams by introducing them to select students or districts first before administering them statewide. For example, in Massachusetts, the state is currently field testing PARCC this school year (2013–14) to establish the validity and reliability of the tests, then combining that administration with continued use of the MCAS. For the 2014–15 school year, K–8 schools can choose which test to use (PARCC or MCAS), and all high schools will continue using MCAS. Not until the 2015–16 school year will students begin to take PARCC assessments, and only then if officials determine that the exam is superior to what the state developed itself (more on this below). The board will not make a final vote on PARCC until Fall 2015, when the first PARCC results are available.

New York, on the other hand, has taken a third approach, creating completely new Common Core–aligned assessments from scratch rather than modifying existing tests. The new assessment was administered to students in ELA and math in grades 3–8 last school year (2012–13), but an official indicated that the state still plans on field testing PARCC during the current school year and will consider using it for all students in all schools next year (2014–15).

Unsurprisingly, as implementation accelerates and states near the transition to Common Core–aligned assessments, pushback on these new tests is growing. In New York, Common Core opponents contend that the state rushed the transition to new exams and that the lower student test scores will unfairly penalize teachers (which led the state to require that test scores not trigger negative consequences for teachers, schools, or districts).

State officials shared with us a different fear: that the new consortia-developed exams, which they have not yet seen, will not be rigorous enough and/or not valid for use in the state’s existing accountability measures. In response, several states revealed that they are reserving the option to revert to their individual state assessments should consortia-designed CCSS assessments ultimately fall short. Massachusetts has been notably candid about its plans to evaluate the rigor and validity of future Common Core assessments, particularly given the state’s historically high student-achievement levels and highly regarded state standards and assessment system. The stakeholders we interviewed in the Bay State were quite clear that the state will go with whichever assessment system is most effective and valid, whether that means using common consortia assessments or returning to its own state assessment. Like Massachusetts, Colorado is taking a wait-and-see approach. The state is preparing to administer the PARCC test to all students in 2014–2015, but it is also weighing its options if issues arise with the PARCC assessments.

Arkansas too is cautious about its transition to Common Core–aligned assessments. While the Natural State introduced the Common Core State Standards in 2011, its state assessment (Arkansas Benchmark Exams) remains the same. This school year, some schools will be piloting the PARCC assessment, and all students are slated to take the PARCC exam in the 2014–15 school year; however, unlike New York, Massachusetts, and Colorado, the state has not developed any sort of transitional assessment for the interim.

In Florida, the assessment situation remains uncertain. Due to rising political pressure, the state will not participate in PARCC field tests this year, and, more recently, the governor has called for the state to end its role as a fiscal agent to PARCC. While the implementation of the standards continues, it is unclear what assessment will be used in the 2014–15 school year. Tellingly, one stakeholder from the Department of Education stated that one of the most difficult aspects of implementing the Common Core standards has been addressing the misconceptions and the politicization of the issue in the state.

On the whole, these five states are approaching assessments cautiously. Surely there are wise and well-justified concerns about whether assessments will be ready on time, high quality, and valid. At the same time, state officials should be careful that their testing doubts do not project skepticism about their commitment to the standards themselves. If states appear to have “one foot in and one foot out” of Common Core implementation, stakeholders (including teachers) are likely to lose confidence.

For other entries in this blog seriers, see Part 1Part 3, and Part 4.

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